Whether or not you’ve ever watched anything that the late Caroline Flack presented, it’s unlikely that you won’t have heard that over the weekend, Caroline died by suicide.
News of her death has filled column inches, clickbait articles and provoked debate around everything from the existence of shows such as “Love Island”, to press intrusion, the worth of mental health awareness and the need for more kindness.
Every ninety minutes someone dies by suicide. Every other hour a life is lost which leaves unimaginable pain, unanswerable questions and grief in its wake.
But in the course of everyday life, very few of us consider this, we are simply getting through our own days, so when suicide pushes itself so forcefully back into the public consciousness, we are astounded yet again by the scale and the pain of it.
The loss of someone so prominent on TV screens up and down the country brings the tragedy of suicide into our own living rooms. We are forced to conceive of that which is inconceivable. It raises age old questions:
“How could they do it?”
As Kay Redfield Jamieson, a psychiatrist and author writes in her book Night Falls Fast:
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of a life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.”
For those of us who have experienced suicidal thoughts; considered, however briefly, taking our own lives there is a sharp edge to these questions. A sharp edge to the passing judgements of strangers online which declare that suicide is “selfish” or “stupid”, because it is a very real reminder that some have been unable to stay in the world.
Suicide cannot be considered in those terms; it is unspeakable for so many, both because of the pain it leaves with those whose lives are claimed, and for those who have lived in spite of a pull toward an abrupt ending.
Suicide is not selfish, because for the most part, the people who die by suicide believe themselves to be relieving others of a great burden. Caroline herself wrote on Instagram in the months before her death that she feared “being a burden”, it can be an impossibly high barrier to reach across to ask for help.
It is not stupid; because it is often seen as the only course of action for those who have reached past their tether.
Suicide is a tragedy. Over the past thirteen years as I’ve both battled with suicidality, studied it and written about it, tragedy is the only word that even begins to do justice to the enormity and pain of it – for those who lose their lives, those who lose their loved ones and those who live through it.
For the christian, there are more questions. Is it the unforgivable sin? Can they be saved?
And all I can do is to look to scripture, and to lean on the character of the God I have known and trusted for almost twenty-five years. The only unforgivable sin recorded in the Bible is that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which is nothing to do with suicide, and the idea that those who take their own lives being unable to enter glory because of their inability to repent renders the gospel of grace obsolete. Not one of us dies having confessed and repented every sin!
But more than this; we see how God responds to those who consider suicide in the Bible and we are presented with a picture of care and grace, help and hope.
There are a number of completed suicides and considered suicides in the Bible; from King Saul falling on his sword, to Elijah begging for death on Mount Horeb, from Judas’ death to the desperate philippian jailer. In these accounts, there is no moral judgement made. There is prohibition of taking life, yes, in many places in the Bible; but the responses the scriptures record to those considering suicide speak volumes to me.
Elijah is ministered to with food, drink and rest.
The philippian jailer is drawn from harming himself – to hearing the gospel and being baptised.
These passages do not encourage suicide, but they do widen the angle of our viewing to see that when people are desperate they can be ministered to and helped. There is hope.
So that is what I think we need to do, to widen our angle of viewing to consider not just what things look like at face value, to minister to the hurting and hold out hope for those whose view is blurred by tears, until they can hope for themselves once more, drawing from the infinite kindness of our God.
There are things you begin to notice.
Your voice quietens, just a little.
Noise seems louder, scratching at your eardrums.
You’re more easily irritated, patience worn thin.
You are tired, the tiredness spreads through your body like slowly freezing water. It is cold, painful and slows your thoughts and movement.
The feelings are dully familiar, and yet they catch you by surprise because the reprieve has been so long, so welcome.
Thoughts and feelings you have written about many times in the past tense have crept back into your present and they are as fresh and frightening as they were the first time.
Depression is an unwelcome returning guest. And yet you welcome you must, for fighting delay and worsens the inevitable tide which may or may not knock you off your feet.
You know how it goes, it’s a tide you’ve chased many times before and yet it feels new.
The newness is the baby, your delight, who gives no heed to your falling mood or slowing movements. He still needs to be fed, entertained, cherished.
Being a Mum made me reach out sooner than I might have done in the past; because there is not just me and my husband to consider, but a tiny boy who depends on us for everything (whether or not he cares to agree with this.)
And so I fell into my community, I allowed them to care for my family. We accepted help from all sides and I tried to push away the guilt and shame.
I realised, this time, that pride had crept in over the months and years of relative wellness. I speak of struggle in the past tense, I am a “new me” now.
Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that I still need the grace I encourage others to share.
That I experience more freedom is no small amount of work – but it is also the way of the waves – that they have been ridden and not overwhelmed me.
So I write because I believe in honesty, in fighting the stigma (even if today it exists only in my own mind) and in a God who does His most beautiful work in our weakness.
“You aren’t going to do anything silly, are you?”
“Can you promise you won’t do anything stupid?”
A member of staff at my secondary school asked me these questions countless times during my sixth form years.
They weren’t talking about me bunking off lessons, getting into trouble or talking back; they were talking about suicide and self-harm.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people – it’s not silly or stupid – it’s despair.
And when those thoughts and feelings were branded stupid and silly – I heard that I myself was stupid and silly.
The language we use when we’re talking about suicide matters.
Phrases such as “committed suicide” hark back to when suicide was a criminal offence; whilst those like I was faced with fail to recognise the distress and torment that self-harm and suicidal thoughts wreak through someone’s mind and life.
It was over a decade ago, and I hope and pray that no-one struggling with thoughts of suicide and self-harm is met with such language, because the fight for life from those depths is hard enough as it is, without the stigma that can stalk it.
Every year, when the 10th September arrives I’m filled with a mixture of the heaviest grief and a flaming hope that thing can change.
Because my experiences with suicide when I was younger, even though I survived them, have marked my heart. And those marks on my heart fan the flame of hope – because I believe that light does win – that suicide is preventable.
I can speak of hope alongside speaking of suicide because I live with suicide as a part of my story and hope as my daily reality.
If there is someone in your life who is struggling, let your words spark hope rather than cause spirals of despair.
Think about the language you’re using, listen to their story before you rush in with answers and imagine with them what the future can look like and hold their hand as you point to it.
The people who made the most difference in my life during those darkest of times, were the ones who believed in a future for me that I could not conceive of. They were persistent in their belief that hope was real, that there was a life for me to live and yet they allowed me to voice the hardest of words.
It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be here without them and the hope they pointed to.
The hope they pointed to was not an abstract “things will get better”, but rooted the One who walked to His own death for our sakes.
That Jesus’ took on our despair and sin, died on the cross and walked out of the grave with His scars remaining, that’s the hope I looked to through my tears.
It’s the hope I live for today.
That we are saved by a Creator God who willingly gave Himself for us, to endure the worst of humanity so that we may experience the glorious closeness of Him.
That we can speak of hope, on a day which highlights despair, is the work of the One who marked the night’s sky with stars and the Saviour’s hands with scars.
There are, it seems, awareness days for everything under the sun. A quick google revealed that this month alone there is a World Sepsis Day, a Pension Awareness Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day and a National Doodle Day.
Everything has it’s day; and don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that lesser known or stigmatised conditions are being recognised (although I’m not particularly sure that doodling really needs awareness!).
Indeed, we make an effort at ThinkTwice to get involved with days like World Suicide Prevention Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, but we also talk about suicide and mental health the rest of the year too!
And that’s the challenge; do awareness days and weeks actually raise awareness and build understanding? Because they only really work if the awareness leads to understanding.
I think in Britain most of us are now aware that mental health conditions exist and that they’re common. But I wonder if our understanding of mental health condition, of the way they tear through lives and the damage they leave in their wake is really understood.
Mental illnesses are often chronic, and their effects are felt not only by the one with the diagnosis; but by family, friends and colleagues. Our understanding of mental illness has to include understanding how far reaching their impact.
So this year, instead of marking every awareness day in the calendar (although, if you do manage that you probably deserve some kind of reward!) but pick one or two and commit to developing your understanding now you’ve got some awareness.
I wrote this last year as a part of the ThinkTwice #TakeCare campaign and it seems right to share it here to mark this years Self Harm Awareness Day.
For the longest time, the idea of taking care of myself was an anathema to me.
I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do something nice for me – and I found it acutely painful when someone reached out with an act of care or words of comfort.
I just didn’t feel I deserved it.
I didn’t feel I deserved to be liked – and I certainly didn’t deserve the luxury of eating or taking care of myself.
The hatred I had towards myself and my body was unlike I’d ever experienced – it was visceral and violent. And the only way I could manage the intense feelings was by cutting myself or making myself sick.
Both the self-harm and eating disorder served the same function – to manage the unmanageable – to make the mysterious emotional pain, tangible.
I used to wonder, as I watched the scars heal, whether something inside me could be healing in tandem.
It was bundle of contradictions, even then.
I was consumed with shame – but the only way I knew how to deal with the shame was to hurt myself.
I believed God forgives sins – but I couldn’t count myself among the forgiven.
And then, still in the depths of self-destruction, I went to Bible College.
Before I went, I made a strange decision to be myself. I decided I wasn’t going to hide behind a facade – but be honest about who I was and how I was feeling. I fully expected to be hated and disliked. I’d convinced myself that those who loved me did so out of duty.
The problem was, people welcomed me, they became my closest friends.
It turned my worldview on its head.
And yet I still lived under my own tyranny.
Until eventually, I began to loosen my grip on my self-destruction and cereal eating.
With the support and encouragement of my friends, I began to take care of myself.
Small ways at first; making sure I got out in the fresh air once a day, eating more in small increments.
The small increments grew; I started to eat more healthily, exercise gently.
It took a long time to get anywhere near something which looks like recovery, the thoughts have remained, but life became a better option than death.
Quite simply, I let the community around me love me back to life.
As they cared for me; drying my tears and encouraging my faltering steps, I began to take care of myself.
I glimpsed something of a God who cared more than I could imagine through the acts of care I received from my friends.
And so this week in particular, I want to encourage you, reading these words, to take care of those around you who are struggling.
And to those of you who are struggling – hold on – and let those who love you take care of you.
For more information on self harm and where to get help- check out www.selfharm.co.uk
On Sunday I preached three times on a theology of mental health and finding Jesus in the darkest of places, sharing some of my story along the way.
It’s something I do a lot, it’s a part of my job.
But there was something particularly poignant about sharing at my home church. Usually I can share and then leave churches to mull over their response without having to worry that lots of people now know some of the darkest parts of my story. Sharing this message at my home church seemed riskier somehow; they’re family, I see them every week.
And after each service yesterday I felt as though I were missing a layer of skin and today I feel a little bruised – but in a good way – because I think I’ve learned a few things along the way about story sharing and the vulnerability hangover which follows.
Over the past seven years of sharing some of my story online and in person; gearing up to release the book there have been a few things that have helped keep me safe and sane along the way.
- The first is that very early on, I decided on the parameters of what was for sharing and what was to be kept safe. This has been a helpful yardstick, knowing how much of my story to share from the beginning means that I’m not tempted to share more or less depending on the situation and I don’t get into tricky situations where some people know more than others and I have to keep track of who knows what!
- The second is related to the first, but its that I’m mindful to share my own story – not anyone else. Obviously there are plenty of other key characters in my story, but their stories are not mine to tell, where I do share stories featuring others I make sure they have copy-approval before I share and anonymise them if needs be.
- Thirdly, as much as there are parts of my story I keep between myself and my loved ones, I recognise that my story is just a tiny part of the story of God’s people trying to love Him better and share that love the best way they know how. It doesn’t matter, ultimately if others think differently of me because of my story; what matters is that at every junction I point others to the ultimate author. Telling our stories shouldn’t be done at the expense of the gospel to fill time, but told to highlight the greater story we are all a part of.
- Finally, I try to make sure that a day of intense vulnerability is followed by one of rest and fun. If I’m to keep doing what I believe God is calling me to do, I need to make sure that I’m having time to recharge and allow the bruises to heal.
What things do you think are important when sharing your story?
I spent much of yesterday with a group of chaplains talking about suicide.
Perhaps not the way many would choose to spend their Wednesday, but it is arguably the most important part of my job.
People, unsurprisingly, don’t like talking about suicide; it’s scary and taboo.
And yet at the centre of every suicide; every attempt and every lost life is a story.
They are stories of pain, shame, grace and brutal bravery.
Yes, because choosing life when everything in you is begging for death is a brutal kind of bravery.
Some do not manage to ever be called brave; their deaths are shrouded in shame and fear.
But behind every suicide, every suicidal thought, every suicide attempt is a bravery that has so often fought for life by the minute before their final curtain fell.
It is not that someone’s suicide should be celebrated, but those living with its’ reality should not be denigrated either.
The stories of lives suicide has ended, interrupted or scarred are hidden in the libraries of our communities under fake smiles and exhaustion.
The darkest stories of our lives can be redeemed – but these stories have to be shared.
They don’t need to be shared on stages or social media, but with trusted people who can hold our stories and allow us to explore them so that we can come to terms with who we are, where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
Ann Voskamp writes that:
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”
What we need to do is create the safe places for stories to be shared.
The seed of ThinkTwice was planted ten years ago today.
It was one of the darkest days; I was very sick, possibly very close to the state we might call madness. After an overdose I was in my local psychiatric unit for the night. It was one of the most hopeless and desperate places I have ever encountered and I myself was hopeless and desperate. With the policemen, the gentleman with schizophrenia in the next bed and the Jane Doe opposite I wondered where God was. I turned the volume up on my iPod and listened to a recent sermon my Pastor had given. It contained a reflection on John chapter 1 so read the passage first:
“Here’s the gospel truth: “The Word became flesh”. God has a human face in Jesus. God knows what its like to be human. God is not indifferent! He does care. In fact, God couldn’t care more – and so God did intervene. The light that was coming into the world stepped down into our darkness. God came to our rescue – to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves – ‘the Man who is God’ bringing us and God together – he came in love to be ‘God with us’ – he came in love to save us – to save us from our sins – to save us from a death without God – to save us for heaven.”
And for the remainder of that night, despite the horror and the pain, I had another thought circling:
We’ve got to shine in here.
It was thought that lay dormant for four years as I fought first for the desire to recover, and then began to work my way up from the underworld of my mental illness. In fact, I’d all but forgotten those words that had come to me all those years before.
Until I re-visted a psychiatric unit, this time as a volunteer chaplain. As I walked through the corridors talking to the men and women whose lives were being lived within the walls of a secure unit, the long forgotten words came back to me.
“We’ve got to shine in here”
What followed were dreams and commissioning the design of a logo of a project that didn’t exist yet.
A facebook page and a blog to raise awareness of mental health conditions in the church.
I did not imagine that it would become my job; that it would be a charity ten years after that first spark was ignited.
God has proved to me time and again that he works in the rubble of our lives to make something good. He doesn’t necessarily make the situation good – but His remarkable grace and redemption build something strong from the broken places.
Isaiah 43 reminds us beautifully:
“But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
God’s redemptive power built a ministry of evangelism in Paul, who had persecuted christians.
It restored the walls of the city in Nehemiah.
And it brought the Israelites from slavery into their promised land.
God doesn’t work how we expect Him to, He sometimes doesn’t work how we would like; but He does work and He restores us in the broken places and brings something new from old wounds.
And ten years later, I am so grateful for the God who shines in the darkness and redeems the darkest of days.
This day does get easier.
It is not marked, as it once was by disgust and self-hatred.
It is not marked with wondering what would have happened if I had taken my own life that day.
Instead, there is sadness at the girl I was, who so desperately tried to fight with life, rather than fighting for it.
There is still regret, I don’t think that will change, because that day changed the course of my life and hurt people I love very dearly.
Now, however, there is grace where there was once disgrace.
There is life, where once there were only thoughts of death.
There is hope, where once there was only despair.
I wrote the below for Threads last year, and the same is true today, 10 years on from the day I lost hope.
It was a freezing cold day with that scent of winter that is unique to the weeks between Bonfire Night and Christmas. I hadn’t been well for a long time, depression had me in an iron-clad hold, joy wheezing and hope all but burnt out. The day it was extinguished was unremarkable, a normal Wednesday.
And yet it was that day that the faltering, flickering flame of hope that kept me putting the smile on my face was extinguished for what felt like the last time. And as I stared at the ashes where the flame had been, I decided that I was finished.
Later that day, I tried to take my own life.
It was not carefully considered, nor meticulously planned; it wasn’t a completed suicide. It was a semi-colon, not a full stop; and yet in the nearly 10 years that have passed since that day I have been reminded again and again that it is in the those most empty of moments that God shows up.
I remember that day as if it happened to someone else. I work now to help others get through days as dark as that November day was for me. Confirmation, if ever it was needed, that God is in the business of restoration – and has a rather strange sense of humour.
And as the Church, with the brightest of lights, we’ve got a part to play in God’s work.
While history may teach that the Church reacts with condemnation and cruelty in the face of suicide, I don’t see that when I look at the way God ministers to the suicidal and the hopeless in the Bible.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah begs for death atop Mount Horeb and he is greeted with rest and recouperation, nourishment and a listening ear – a recommissioning.
In Acts 16, Paul calls his jailer back from the brink and invites him into the family of God. Albert Hsu says: “Paul’s model of suicide prevention is one we can follow today. He intervened in the jailer’s crisis. He stopped him from harming himself. He gave him a reason to live. We can do the same.”
And doesn’t Jesus reveal himself to Cleopas walking the road to Emmaus by showing his own scars to soothe his dashed hopes and fractured faith?
Hope after suicide calls for compassion and grace in extraordinary measures. It calls for speaking truth, rather than hiding behind words of shame and despair. We can’t cower behind phrases like ‘did something silly’, we need to use the vocabulary of understanding like ‘died by suicide’, rather than the language of criminal condemnation found in phrases such as ‘committed suicide’.
Suicide calls for the nourishment and rest Elijah received, the intervention of Paul, but most powerfully, the scars of Christ as a reminder that God is Immanuel. That He walks alongside us when all hope is feels lost and shows us that He is bigger than the greatest of our pain.